This one started out as a story that I was going to submit for a competition, but after having a rethink I shelved it. Now it’s complete and ready for viewing. Enjoy.
Of all the outlaws who menaced the Old West, none were as cruel, sharp or greedy as the Jacobs Gang. One bright July morning, brothers Jude and Finn Jacobs, their four comrades and their latest recruit were lying hidden on the western face of Copperhead Canyon keeping a close eye on Copperhead Bridge.
“Get ready, boys,” Jude Jacobs hissed. “Isiah Makepeace’s excursion train is gonna come round the mountain any minute now.”
Copperhead Canyon lay deep in the heart of the Colorado Rockies. Carved out by the winding Copperhead River over millennia, its western face was merely steep, providing ample anchorage for pine and aspen trees. Yet its eastern face was a virtual cliff, rising precipitously for eight hundred metres to the summit of Mount Bragg. Climbing it is possible, but only by negotiating the steep crevices behind the rocky teeth that jut out of its surface.
Once, Copperhead Canyon had presented a gruelling challenge to the mule trains that transported gold from the mining town of Smokewood towards the railway yard at Boulder. But no more. Isiah Makepeace, owner of the Smokewood mine and much-loved local hero, had invested a sizeable share of his vast fortune in the construction of a branch line between the two towns. First, his workers had balanced the tracks along embankments on the western face of the canyon. Then they had hacked out a tunnel through the Mount Bragg. Smokewood’s citizens rejoiced as the costs of transporting gold to Boulder were reduced to a fifth of what they once were. Every so often, Isiah Makepeace even offered low cost excursion trains down the mountains for the citizens’ enjoyment, and it was just this kind of train that the Jacobs Gang now waited for.
“This dude had better not have been selling us a load of garbage,” snarled Jude’s elder brother Finn, jerking his thumb at a man standing at the edge of their group.
The other members of the Jacobs Gang – Rick, Sam, Salvador and Ignatio – turned to glare at the seventh man in their group; a thin, handsome, auburn-haired young fellow in a neat black waistcoat and pants. His smooth complexion, serene manner and impeccable dress sense seemed out of place next to these ragged, brutal outlaws.
“No need to look at me like that, fellahs,” he grinned. “I’m a railroad conductor, remember? I know all the times the trains run and Mr. Makepeace trusts me like a brother. That train will reach the bridge bang on time. Trust me.”
“It better, Gringo,” Salvador warned him. “If it don’t, you gonna beg for mercy before the end.”
“And what’s more, Makepeace had better be on it!” Rick snapped.
The Jacobs Gang’s plan was simple. They would trap the excursion train on Copperhead Bridge and rob the passengers; far better that than rob a goods train laden with heavy, cumbersome gold that they would somehow need to carry down the mountain.
Copperhead Bridge was the crowning glory of the Makepeace Line; a latticework of wood and steel eighty metres high and four hundred metres long. Yet at its opposite end lay Mount Bragg Tunnel, hewn out of the mountain’s treacherous eastern face through to its opposite side at great financial and human cost.
The Jacobs Gang had set explosives around the entrance of Mount Bragg Tunnel, which they would set off with a detonator just as the excursion train came into view of the bridge. The trick was to time the explosives just right so that the driver saw the collapse in time to stop safely on Copperhead Bridge. Trapped on top of the bridge, Isiah Makepeace and his fellow passengers would be helpless to stop the gang as they robbed them at gunpoint and fled.
“Jimmy ain’t sellin’ us no apples, fellahs,” said Jude, chiding his comrades. “I know when a guy’s really got it in fer someone. Jimmy’s sick of his lot and he’s just as keen to get one over on Makepeace as any of us.”
“You’re right there, Jude,” said the auburn-haired young man. “Makepeace has given me nothing but grief since I started working for him; a pauper’s wages, back-breaking hours, no respect. He owes me big and if he won’t give it to me, I’m going to take it from him by force.”
To ensure his plan’s success, Jude Jacobs needed an inside man, who knew the comings and goings of the trains. James Weller, a disgruntled young conductor who resented his dull, stressful vocation, was just that man. By means of a secret symbol scratched on a tree, he had insinuated to the Jacobs Gang that he meant to offer them a chance to get rich with his assistance. They had met up with him in a forest clearing, discussed the plan and, despite Finn’s scepticism, agreed to it. Now, three weeks later, everything was ready and patience was all that was needed.
“Say, did I just hear an engine?” Sam piped up.
Jimmy whipped out a fob watch and checked the time.
“I reckon you did, Sam,” he smiled. “Let me just go out on point and check.”
He hurried from the clump of boulders the gang was hiding behind to the base of a tall pine tree just down the hill.
“Careful, Jimmy!” hissed Jude. “You might be spotted!”
But the young man paid him no heed as he gazed south along the canyon through his field glasses towards the faint sound Sam had heard. Moments later, a whistle reverberated along the walls of the canyon.
“It’s the train!” he cried. “The excursion train is on its way! Let’s have a drink to our success!”
He raised a hip flask to his lips and took a pull from it. The Jacobs Gang were busy cheering, so none of them saw he kept his lips closed as he did so.
“Hey, Jimmy, give us a sip of that will ya?” Rick grinned.
“No problem, Rick. It’s good for the heart, you know?” Jimmy quipped.
He tossed the bottle towards the gang. It smashed on a rock at Finn’s feet.
The last thing Jude, Finn, Rick, Sam, Salvador or Ignatio remembered was the crash of glass and a surge of heat as they were immolated by a ball of flame.
“After all, nitro glycerine was, originally, a heart medicine,” Jimmy sneered, as he grinned with malicious delight.
Jimmy turned from the ruined, charred bodies of his supposed allies and looked up the canyon wall. The excursion train was rushing past on the embankment overhead. Vengeful joy rose within his chest as he watched it coldly. The detonator for the dynamite was sitting a couple of feet in front of the Jacobs Gang’s bodies. It would still be needed soon, but not for the same purpose the gang had wanted it for.
The excursion train came into view of the Copperhead Bridge. Jimmy sat by the detonator and cuddled it between his legs. He pulled the plunger up high and waited for the train to reach the approach to the bridge. Barely a minute from now, he would resolve a shocking injustice in the only way he could.
But it was not to be. There was a thunder of hooves, and a white-bearded man with a weather-beaten face and a star on his lapel came into view, with a posse of four at his side. Jimmy wheeled around as they approached from a stand of trees about a hundred metres away. He instantly recognised the brave and stoical head of law enforcement in Smokewood; Marshall Roscoe Peters.
“No, don’t do it, Jimmy!” Peters roared. “I know why you wanna blow up that tunnel, but you don’t have to Jimmy. Justice ain’t gonna cheat you.”
“Stay back, Marshal Peters!” Jimmy yelled. “Don’t you and your boys come any closer, and don’t you cock your guns. That train’s too close to the tunnel to stop now. If I blow the charges, it’ll crash and be off the bridge!”
“Whoa there, boys!” the marshal of Smokewood called to the posse. “Do as he says. I think he’ll listen to me.”
“You aren’t an agent of justice this time, Marshal,” Jimmy sneered. “You’re Makepeace’s cash cow. This is a crime the law won’t resolve.”
“You’re wrong, Jimmy,” Marshal Peters called, as coolly as if talking to a friend. “I serve the law, not my wages. Now I know why you’re doing this, son. It’s about Carlton, isn’t it, Isiah Makepeace’s son?”
Jimmy stared him out and didn’t answer.
“You figure you’re gonna blow the tunnel when the train passes into it, yeah?” Marshal Peters explained. “You’re gonna kill young Carlton and all his sinful, profiteering kin, for what happened to your sister.”
Still, Jimmy stared hard and cold at Marshall Peters and his posse. The excursion train was nearly on the bridge now. Peters’ deputy unfastened his holster and made to reach for his Colt…
“No, Ken, no!” barked the marshal. “Jimmy, don’t push that plunger! Now, I know that Carlton Makepeace raped your sister. Two witnesses have made statements confirming it. Carlton’s going to swing for what he did; I’ve cabled the sheriff in Boulder and he’ll take him in once he gets off the train. But you’ll hang yourself if you go ahead with this. Your life hangs on whether or not you make one push with your hands, Jimmy. Don’t do it.”
Jimmy looked back at the bridge. His expression was now pained and deeply unsure. The excursion train was crossing the bridge now. Soon it would reach the tunnel and the time he had chosen to strike would be at hand.
“It’s too late, Marshal,” Jimmy groaned. “I’m already a murderer. Six counts. You can see the bodies for yourself. There’s nothing else left to do.”
“Those men were outlaws, Jimmy,” Peters said evenly. “They’re wanted dead or alive in six states. You’re not a murderer; you’re a bounty hunter. Ken here spied on your meeting with ‘em, but he ain’t reported what he heard. You’re due a big reward, Jimmy, if only you live long enough to collect it.”
The excursion train was now half way along Copperhead Bridge.
“Do you swear on Almighty God you can convict Carlton Makepeace?” Jimmy yelled, tears welling in his eyes. “Can you make him pay?”
“I have the statements right here,” Marshal Peters called, displaying two crumpled pieces of paper in his inside jacket pocket. “By God, I will do everything to see that young scoundrel pays for what he’s done, and even if he doesn’t, his family won’t even want to know him after such an accusation.”
Jimmy gazed hard into Marshal Peters’ eyes, glimmering earnestly and with the wisdom that comes only with age. It was a gaze that no wise man could fail to trust.
With an agonised scream, he ripped the detonator’s two electrical wires out of their contacts. As the excursion train passed into Mount Bragg Tunnel, the dam broke in his soul and tears flowed from his eyes in a waterfall.
“Oh, Jenny!” he howled in anguish. “I loved you so! But I have to trust the marshal’s right. I’m not a murderer, not really! I know I swore on your soul and to God above I’d avenge you, but that promise I have to break in the hope that justice will be done in this life. Forgive me, Jenny. You were strong enough to seek your grave, but I’m not. Not yet.”
The posse watched Jimmy sob uncontrollably for a few moments, impassively. Then, the deputy dismounted and walked over to him to put a hand on his shoulder.
“Never mind, now, Jimmy,” he smiled. “It’s over. Ya did the right thing. We brought a spare horse so we could take you back. C’mon, let’s go home. We’ll share a drink back at the station.”